Optical Brighteners – The Illusion of Whiter

February 27, 2012 at 9:29 pm 2 comments

Are your white clothes really whiter after you wash them? Most laundry detergents contain optical brighteners, which are chemicals that trick your sensory perception. Your clothes are not really whiter and brighter, you only think they are. Optical brighteners leave a residue of molecules that reflect ultraviolet light from your clothing (1-3). The detergents are not providing a deeper clean to brighten fabrics; they are leaving yet another layer of chemicals to give the appearance of vivid color.

The brighteners stick to more than just your clothes. While you are working, relaxing, eating and sleeping, the chemical coating on your clothes and bedding is rubbing against your skin. Due to the ultraviolet reactive molecules, your skin can become photosensitive and easily burn from exposure to sunlight. Increased exposure to ultraviolet rays increases your risk for skin cancer, which is only one of the many reasons to avoid optical brighteners (7).

People with sensitive skin often experience irritation and develop skin rashes from optical brighteners. Because many people assume this is some sort of allergy, they opt for detergents that market “hypo-allergenic” formulas. The problem with such detergents is that many of them actually contain ingredients to mask undesirable chemical odors.

In addition to the irritation that optical brighteners may cause your skin, they harm the life within our waterways. Such toxic chemicals can change the physical properties of small organisms and poison fish. As they do not readily biodegrade, their effects are long lasting within our environment (4-6).

The Alternatives

Natural cotton is not fluorescent white, therefore we believe that optical brighteners are unnecessary.  At SmartKlean, we choose not to use them in our laundry ball because they raise the threat of harm to the environment and health. There are many natural and inexpensive alternatives to whiten fabrics without the need to add a film of toxins to your laundry. See our tips on How to Whiten Your Laundry without Bleach or Optical Brighteners.



  1. Chen H-C, Ding W-H. Hot-water and solid-phase extraction of fluorescent whitening agents in paper materials and infant clothes followed by unequivocal determination with ion-pair chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography A 2006: 1108: 202-207.
  2. Iamazaki E T, Atvars T D Z. Sorption of a Fluorescent Whitening Agent (Tinopal CBS) onto Modified Cellulose Fibers in the Presence of Surfactants and Salt. Langmuir 2007: 23: 12886-12892.
  3. Stana K K, Pohar C, Ribitsch V. Adsorption of whitening agents on cellulose fibers — Monitored by streaming potential measurements, calorimetry and fluorescence. Colloid & Polymer Science 1995: 273: 1174-1178.
  4. Kramer J B, Canonica S, Hoigne J, Kaschig J. Degradation of Fluorescent Whitening Agents in Sunlit Natural Waters. Environmental Science & Technology 1996: 30: 2227-2234.
  5. Poiger T, Field J A, Field T M, Siegrist H, Giger W. Behavior of fluorescent whitening agents during sewage treatment. Water Research 1998: 32: 1939-1947.
  6. Canonica S, Kramer J B, Reiss D, Gygax H. Photoisomerization Kinetics of Stilbene-Type Fluorescent Whitening Agents. Environmental Science & Technology 1997: 31: 1754-1760.
  7. Gloxhuber C, Bloching H. Toxicological properties of fluorescent whitening agents. Clinical Toxicology 1979: 13: 728-733.

Entry filed under: Health Hazards, Natural Cleaning. Tags: , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John  |  August 27, 2012 at 7:48 am

    I have a theory that optical brighteners have all sorts of neural effects as they expose you to unnatural light. If you spend your life looking at fluorescent clothes it can actually damage your eyesight. Also you could have dangerous UV light on you skin which could cause skin cancer.

  • 2. Terese @ www.thecountrybasket.com  |  March 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Very interesting article! I didn’t realize these chemicals were so bad for skin and for the environment. Thanks for sharing!

    I linked to this article on my own (newly started) blog: http://delightfulhomelife.com/money-saver-making-your-own-laundry-detergent-recipe/


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